A large construction development project can be divided into two phases: the demolition of existing property structures and the construction of new buildings. It is the construction phase that is often focused on by developers/owners: they secure a reputable general contractor, architect, and engineer to ensure an efficient and quality process. The demolition phase, however, is often erroneously oversimplified, with the entirety of its success entrusted to the sub-contracted demolition/abatement contractor. While it is important to have a reputable subcontractor to perform the demolition and abatement work, it is not in the owner’s best interest (or the subcontractor’s preference) to leave them responsible for all aspects of the demolition. Failing to ensure your subcontractor has a well-written specification to adhere to and not hiring an experienced project manager to advocate for the owner’s interests on-site are two common mistakes top developers aren’t making and here’s why:
A well-written specification will outline for the subcontractor the quantity and location of hazardous materials (asbestos, lead, etc.), universal waste, and heavy metals; address the safety regulations that need to be met by correctly classifying the level of abatement each area necessitates; and to meet the interests of the owner, often details the most cost-effective way of sequencing the abatement. A strong specification will also consider the areas deeper within the building structure where further regulated materials are likely to be encountered during demolition, which allows for the pre-planning of probable delays and eradicates a potential scheduling setback. The specification is a very important document to have done well because if information is left out or erroneous (as often seen in specifications written by inexperienced project designers), it leaves the subcontractor to assess and decide what needs to be removed, which regulations need to be followed during the removal, and how it should be sequenced—critical project design decisions they are not qualified to make, and if made incorrect, can lead to project setbacks and fines.
If left without a specification to guide them, a subcontractor will perform the demolition and abatement with a “take it as it comes” approach. This equates to abating hazardous materials as they are discovered. As one can infer, not only does this method make a project vulnerable to lengthy delays, but it also takes away an owner’s ability to hold someone accountable for the delay since this hazardous material potential was never written into the original bid and schedule. Furthermore, each time potentially hazardous materials are encountered, normal demolition activity must be suspended while these materials are assessed. Depending on the results of the assessment, project parameters (crew and equipment) and their coinciding schedule must be altered. Remember, construction crews schedule their work far in advance and are continuously moving from one project site to the next. If one does not utilize their services in the time allotted, it can be very stressful and difficult to arrange a new schedule within a short time period.
Besides a strong specification, it is imperative that a developer/owner also have a knowledgeable project manager overseeing the demolition and abatement work. Unless they plan on being on-site each day and are highly knowledgeable about construction time sequencing and pricing, not having a project manager prevents them from having accurate, real-time information about their project. A knowledgeable project manager will provide them with the certainty that people are adhering to the most optimal process of demolition/abatement and being held accountable to the agreed upon project timeline. A good project manager does this through weekly planning meetings that verify the scope, what was accomplished, what still needs to be accomplished, and forces the subcontractor to answer how they will address any current lags. An experienced project manager will calculate the current pace and force the subcontractor to take the necessary steps (for example, by increasing the crew or adding additional equipment) needed to keep the project on schedule. (Industry Tip: When hiring a project manager, look to ensure their bid mandates being on-site while project work is being performed (versus remote or infrequent check-ins). This ensures that each challenge that arises is handled immediately with the least amount of lag time, and visits from L&I and other regulating bodies are taken care of with precision and efficiency.)
Having an experienced project manager providing demolition oversight also streamlines the discovery and abatement of materials that may be found deep within the building structure. Hazardous material specialists have the knowledge to foresee the areas where hazardous materials may be present ahead of time, synchronizing these potentials into the schedule from the beginning, rather than having to alter the schedule during. They also hold the training needed to sample and analyze these materials in advance, rather than as encountered.
Besides causing schedule delays, not investing in a strong specification can be a costly decision because it means the abatement costs of hazardous materials is an unknown entity in the agreed upon contract/budget with the demolition/abatement subcontractor. As anyone in the construction industry understands, having anything unspecified in a contract leaves the price of that work open to leaving the budget as the work progresses. This can strain the owner/subcontractor relationship; the subcontractor feels uncomfortable having to continually ask for addition funding and feels this could’ve been avoided had he/she known about the materials beforehand and been able to provide a more applicable bid, while the owner can experience feelings of distrust, as well as stress from the project going so far above the initial budget.
A second aspect of cost control that a well-written specification provides is greater precision. A subcontractor does not have the skillset of an experienced project designer to construe the most economical and efficient removal. What’s more, there is an extremely high price differential between labeling an entire area as hazardous material containing versus, for example, having the expertise to deduce that only one layer of a floor needs to be classified as such.
Lastly, hiring an experienced project manager for project oversight allows the owner to rest-assured that there will be clear adherence to the specification and the identified budget—no exceptions.
Unlike the construction phase, the demolition phase deals with the abatement of many heavily regulated materials. They are dangerous to the health and safety of humans and being such, regulating agencies take their proper handling and disposal very seriously. This is why there are hefty fines (often bankrupt worthy) when officials discover project sites out of compliance with these regulations. At the end of the day, an owner is both liable and culpable for what is happening on their property, and therefore it is important to have somebody on-site who is knowledgeable about the regulations, an expert at properly identifying hazardous materials, and can ensure that the contractor’s means and methods are adequate to meet compliance standards.
The demolition phase of property development should not be overlooked. Just as you wouldn’t hire a general contractor and tell them to “just start building”, it is unwise to subcontract out the demolition and leave them to “just start demolishing”. In the same way that a general contractor needs architectural drawings to build well and benefits from the collaboration of a project manager, the subcontractor handling the demolition and abatement needs a thorough specification to effectively perform his/her role and also benefits from knowledgeable project guidance. Top developers understand these realities and protect themselves by hiring a skilled project designer to write a comprehensive specification and an experienced project manager to remain on-site throughout demolition and abatement, advocating on their behalf.